My essay on Michael Wyschogrod, the great Orthodox Jewish theologian whose work has graced the pages of First Things twice this year. It is an honor to honor Michael at any time, but especially during the Yomim Tovim.
Wo es sich christelt, da judelt es sich auch, in Heinrich Heine’s word-play: It says more or less, “Where Christians do something, Jews do the same,” but with the onomatopoetic sense in German of “tinkling” (christeln) versus “doodling” (judeln). A rationalized rather than a lived Judaism comes down to doodling. Judaism that emphasizes “ethical monotheism” against “ritual observance,” and rejects or qualifies the chosenness of Israel, really is mainline Protestantism with a tallis.
Judaism without commandments never made sense to me. If you observe the injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” because it comes from God, why not also observe the commandment in the next verse not to wear cloth woven of two kinds of material? And if these don’t come from God, where do they come from? No surviving school of philosophy claims to derive any system of ethics—let alone “love thy neighbor”—from reason. Even if we think that ethics can be deduced from reason, why do we need the Torah? Or if we believe that altruism is an evolutionary adaptation, why should ethics have anything to do with Judaism? If “love thy neighbor” is not a divine commandment, and if it is not a logical deduction, then what is it? For semi-affiliated Jews, it’s the residue of a faith to which formerly observant Jews of an older generation have a sentimental attachment.
There is a great gulf fixed between “ethical monotheism” and traditional Jewish observance, which demands that we accept God’s will rather than our own criteria of judgment. As Wyschogrod notes, just that was the sin of Eve and Adam, who ate the forbidden fruit in order to acquire autonomous knowledge of good and evil. Such knowledge is what the philosophers promised from Plato to Kant, but failed to deliver; philosophy walked out on ethics in the 19th century and never looked back.
The trouble is that Jews who grew up surrounded by Christian culture do not know any way to act except according to their own autonomous criteria of judgment, yet the exercise of autonomous choice undermines the spirit of Jewish observance. How do we get there from here?
Read the essay and find out.